Australia’s Indigenous Voice to Parliament

One of Anthony Albanese’s election promises was establishing an Indigenous Voice to parliament – a process which has roots stretching back decades. While there is widespread support among the public for this step, it’s less clear how Albanese will unify his colleagues in parliament behind the voice.

The History of the Voice

Indigenous peoples have been campaigning for formal parliamentary representation for close to a century, but no official moves were made to that end until a few decades ago.

Advisory bodies were established in 2010 and 2015 by the Gillard and Turnbull administrations, respectively. These groups were tasked with advising the government on options for effecting Indigenous constitutional recognition, and made some steps towards Indigenous political agency.  

However, perhaps the most meaningful action in the history of the Voice was rejected by the Turnbull administration – the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

In 2017, a coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community leaders came together to make a statement of Indigenous sovereignty and ask for constitutional reform.

MP Linda Burney, the current Minister for Indigenous Australians, explains the significance of the Uluru Statement.

The Statement reasserted that Indigenous sovereignty “has never been ceded or extinguished,” and was hopeful that, “With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.”

Turnbull rejected the Statement, saying he felt the special rights the document called for would not be supported by the majority of the Australian public.

Australia remains, to this day, the only country in the world that hasn’t formally recognised our Indigenous people in the form of a treaty or in the constitution.

What Does the Voice Entail Today?

The Voice to parliament being called for today is essentially a realisation of the Uluru Statement.

In fact, Albanese has vowed to implement the Uluru Statement in full, including establishing a Makarrata Commission, which would work on creating a national treaty and truth-telling process.

In terms of details of what the Voice would entail in practice, not many have emerged thus far. Albanese is determined to call a referendum at some point this year, to have Aussies answer the question, ‘Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice?’

He’s also proposed that three sentences be added to the constitution, to enshrine “a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice”, to allow said body to make representations to the government on Indigenous issues, and to empower the parliament to legislate around the functions of the voice.

Essentially, the Voice will be a formal group that advises the parliament on matters that concern Indigenous communities, either specifically or disproportionately. Such issues might include native title, housing, employment, and heritage protection.

Professor Tom Calma has been instrumental in Indigenous advocacy, and produced the Indigenous Voice co-design report alongside his colleague Professor Marcia Langton. He was recognised this year as Senior Australian of the Year.

Unfortunately, it has been notoriously difficult for Australian PMs to successfully call referendums – our last referendum was back in 1999. And the Australian public has only passed 8 of our 44 referendums since federation.

But polls are positive, showing the majority of the Australian public does support the Voice to parliament. Within parliament, it’s a different story.

The Nationals have already stated they will not support the Voice, and the Liberals are dragging their feet under Peter Dutton’s leadership. Dutton has repeatedly claimed there is ‘insufficient detail’ about the Voice for him to make an official statement of the Liberals’ stance.

In addition, some Indigenous politicians – most notably Greens senator Lidia Thorpe – have thus far opposed the Voice. Thorpe has asked for Labor ‘guarantees’ that First Nations sovereignty wouldn’t be ceded.

“It would take a lot for me to change my personal and long-held view that I don’t think First Nations justice will come from being written into the coloniser’s constitution.”

Cover photo by Johan Mouchet on Unsplash.

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